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Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Conference Finals Recap/NBA Finals Preview

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James never faced each other in the NBA Finals during the years when they were battling for the title of best player in the NBA (though we did see James go 0-1 in the Finals versus former MVP Dirk Nowitzki and 1-2 in the Finals versus former MVP Tim Duncan). It may turn out to be the case that 20 years from now when we look back at James' career his legacy is defined in no small part by his Finals matchups versus Stephen Curry. Reigning two-time MVP Curry will face four-time former MVP James in a rematch of the 2015 Finals, a series won by Curry's Golden State Warriors in six games after trailing James' Cleveland Cavaliers 2-1.

Overcoming deficits is nothing new for Curry and the Warriors; in the past two postseasons they have not only rallied against the Cavaliers in the Finals but they also bounced back after trailing 2-1 versus the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round of the 2015 playoffs and--in an instant classic series that will long be remembered by basketball fans and historians--the Warriors just recovered from a 3-1 hole to defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference Finals.

The Warriors posted a 67-15 record in 2014-15 before setting the all-time mark with a 73-9 record in 2015-16. They are, paradoxically, a dominant team and a team that has displayed some vulnerabilities and weaknesses; the Thunder squad that upset the 67-15 San Antonio Spurs in the second round of this year's playoffs came as close as a team could come to dethroning the Warriors without completing the task, building halftime leads in games six and seven before collapsing down the stretch.

Meanwhile, James has authored a streak of personal in-conference dominance that has not been seen since Bill Russell patrolled the paint. Russell led the Boston Celtics to eight straight NBA Finals--and, more significantly, eight straight championships--from 1959-66. Other than some of Russell's teammates, no player made it to six straight NBA Finals until James accomplished the feat this year, taking Cleveland to the championship round in back to back seasons after previously leading the Heat to the Finals from 2011-14. Yes, the Eastern Conference has lacked both star power and dominant teams during James' era but those facts do not diminish the historical significance of what James has achieved. He has displayed admirable durability, consistency and motivation, three traits that are essential for a player or a team to contend year after year.

Speaking of those three traits, please indulge a brief digression concerning the Oklahoma City Thunder and their two MVP candidates, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Durant and Westbrook have led the Thunder to the Western Conference Finals in four out of the past six seasons; while that run cannot be compared to James' run, it should not be dismissed, either. The Western Conference has been the dominant conference in the NBA for several years, yet when Durant and Westbrook have been healthy they have perennially carried their team to the brink of the NBA Finals (and to a Finals trip in 2012). The ideas that Durant and Westbrook cannot play together or cannot win a championship together are ridiculous, because they already have an impressive track record of success. If Durant leaves the Thunder this summer then that will be a sign that--like James Harden, who previously left the Thunder for the opportunity to lead Houston to a series of first round playoff exits--Durant's top priority is not winning a championship; similarly, it would be foolish for Thunder management to voluntarily break up the Durant-Westbrook duo. The Thunder need to tweak their late game execution and perhaps their substitution patterns but a team that ousted the Spurs and nearly eliminated a historically great Warriors team should not be dismantled.

Back to James and the Cavaliers. James has rarely been seriously threatened in the Eastern Conference playoffs in recent seasons but in my Eastern Conference Finals Preview I noted that Toronto is "the type of team that has challenged James in the past during the playoffs (a good team that is hard-nosed and has several good but not great players). Tyronn Lue is a rookie coach and it will be interesting to see how he responds if the Cavaliers face adversity during this series, particularly if that adversity comes in the form of James becoming disengaged/disinterested (as has happened repeatedly during LeBron James' career after the first round of the playoffs)."

While most analysts expected the Cavaliers to trample the Raptors--a sentiment that gained popularity after the Cavaliers routed the Raptors in the first two games of the series--I felt that Toronto had the right elements to at least bother the Cavaliers. Many commentators struggled during the series to explain how Toronto took games three and four but those ebbs and flows did not surprise me--and it also did not surprise me that in a do or die game five the Raptors did not have quite enough firepower to deal with a fully engaged LeBron James (the enduring mystery of James' career is to predict/anticipate which big games will capture his interest versus which big games will cause him to be inexplicably passive).

James is reflexively described as a "pass first" player but his best trait--and the trait that has helped him win two NBA titles--is that he is almost impossible to stop when he attacks the paint with the primary goal of scoring. James scored a series-high 26.0 ppg on .622 field goal shooting during the Eastern Conference Finals; he had some moments of inexplicable passivity (moments that helped the Raptors notch two victories) but it was evident that when he either posted up or relentlessly attacked the paint off of the dribble the Raptors had no answer. The signature performances of James' playoff career all involve dominant scoring runs, while the bizarre losses that mar his playoff resume share one common trait: James refused to shoot and/or settled for shots far outside of the paint.

James' All-Star caliber teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have both played well this postseason, though Love has been less consistent and less aggressive than Irving. Irving is a dynamic scorer who is underrated as a passer and defender (he is not a great passer or defender but he is better in both areas than he is often credited for being). Love can score anywhere from the block to the three point line, he can rebound, he is an excellent passer (particularly excelling at delivering pinpoint outlet passes) and this season he has even shown flashes of defensive competence. Love has also discovered the truth in Chris Bosh's prediction when James signed with Cleveland two years ago: it is not always easy to play with James and doing so often requires sublimating your game/statistics to James' desire to control the ball. Love appears to be a sensitive player who does not have an assertive personality; it is telling that statistics show that Love's field goal percentage during a game can be predicted based on whether he makes or misses his first shot. If James were truly a pass-first player like Magic Johnson or Jason Kidd, then James would look for Love early in every single game and make sure to get him going. Think back to how Johnson bolstered the young Vlade Divac's confidence and helped mold him into a player who could start at center in the NBA Finals. Instead, Love gets the ball when and where James or Irving deign to give it to him and that dynamic--combined with Love's lack of an alpha dog personality--explains why Love's numbers are so inconsistent.

Kevin McHale once said that he would love to play against the Warriors because "those guys couldn't grow enough to guard me." Both James and Love enjoy decided matchup advantages in the post against the Warriors and exploiting those advantages would enable the Cavaliers to control tempo and create foul trouble. If James or Love score 10 points on 5-6 field goal shooting in the paint in the first quarter of game one of the Finals then the Cavaliers will be in good shape; if James refuses to post up or passes out of single coverage in the post to three point shooters who are also single-covered then the Cavaliers will be in trouble.

"Stat gurus" argue that the math favors teams like the Warriors that emphasize three pointers over two pointers. As someone who loves to fire up three pointers in recreational league play--and who understands that a 40% three point shooter is more efficient than even a 50% two point shooter--I can relate to this sentiment but NBA basketball is about much more than just numbers and pie charts. If you force three point shooters to repeatedly get in a defensive stance and to battle in the paint against bigger foes then you can wear them down and ultimately chip away at their shooting percentages. This is not just a theoretical concept; we just saw the Thunder come within inches/minutes of dethroning the Warriors by playing this way--and it took record setting three point shooting by the Warriors combined with shaky decision making by the Thunder to save the Warriors.

While the NBA game is not nearly as physical as it used to be, both Conference Finals had some confrontational moments. One interesting aspect of the Eastern Conference Finals which did not attract much media coverage is how James dealt with hard fouls/physical play. In the previous series versus Atlanta, Jeff Teague cheap-shotted James, sending James flying into the stands where James crashed into some courtside spectators who fortunately were not harmed. James just dusted himself off and returned to the court, sparing us the fake macho displays of so many NBA players who run toward an opposing player as if they want to fight, knowing full well that an armada of players, coaches and referees will prevent any real punches from being thrown; the number of NBA players in the past two decades who truly wanted to fight and who truly knew how to fight comprises a very small list, including but not limited to Jerry Stackhouse, Charles Oakley and Alvin Robertson. Mind you, there is no place in the sport for fighting but I can at least respect a man who feels like he is being challenged/disrespected and who is willing/able to stand up for himself--but I have no respect for the "fugazi" guys, to borrow the term Tim Thomas used to describe Kenyon Martin (who never met a guy half his size that he was not afraid to act tough around, as long as there were people in the vicinity to prevent a fight from breaking out).

The NBA rules are set up to prevent fights by suspending players who throw a punch (even if the punch does not connect) or who leave the bench area while there is an altercation on the court. Therefore, smart players know that no matter what happens the best thing to do is keep your cool. LeBron James, when asked during the Eastern Conference Finals about his restraint in situations when other players might retaliate, quoted a Jay-Z lyric: "If I shoot you, I'm brainless but if you shoot me, you're famous." James added that when he feels angry or has an urge to retaliate he reminds himself to not be "brainless." James has demonstrated such restraint throughout his career, up to and including the aforementioned cheap shot by Teague. James knows that he is a basketball player, not a boxer or a professional wrestler.

James' restraint and his comment bring to mind the 2007 San Antonio-Phoenix series when Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw (a current Spur who was then a Sun) were suspended one game each for leaving the vicinity of the bench during an altercation. Running on to the court when there is a fight or a potential fight may feel macho at the time but it is actually a stupid and selfish demonstration of lack of self control, because the NBA rules clearly state that such an infraction automatically leads to a suspension. Suns' fans who whine about the punishment should instead berate Stoudemire and Diaw for being "brainless." LeBron James--and Stephen Adams, whose private regions were twice used as target practice by Draymond Green during the 2016 Western Conference Finals--proved that a player does not have to throw a punch to be tough; real toughness is demonstrated by staying focused on the task at hand, which is doing whatever you can do within the rules to help your team win.

Green's kick to Adams' groin in game three of the Western Conference Finals was absolutely a dirty play; even if it was not intentional, it was at the very least reckless and dangerous: I have played basketball since I was a little kid and I have never kicked anyone in the groin as part of my follow through on a shot, nor have I seen anyone else do that either. Adams and the Thunder did not react in a "brainless" way but instead hit Green and the Warriors where it hurts the most: the scoreboard.

In my Western Conference Finals Preview I laid out the blueprint for an Oklahoma City victory over Golden State:  "(T)he Thunder's dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook continue to play at an All-NBA First Team--if not MVP--level while the Thunder's platoon of big men dominate the paint." Yet, I picked Golden State to win because I considered Golden State to be a historically great team, while the Thunder appeared to be "merely" at the level of a "normal" championship contender.

That analysis proved to be very much on point. The Thunder showed that the Warriors can be rattled by size; even the Thunder's "small" lineup featured the 7-0 Durant (do not believe his "official" height of 6-9) and the 6-10 Serge Ibaka, plus long-armed perimeter players like Westbrook and Andre Roberson. The Thunder's "big" lineup pounded the Warriors on the boards at both ends of the court and often deterred the Warriors from shooting in the paint. The key against the Warriors is to not get discouraged when Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson hit shots from 25-30 feet away, because those guys are so good that they are going to make those shots no matter who is guarding them. Over the course of a game and a series, size can wear down the Warriors, but it is important for the opposing team to not get so rattled by a 12-0 run that they relegate all of their big men to the bench. The Thunder pummeled the Warriors with size en route to taking a 3-1 lead and, realistically, the Thunder outplayed the Warriors the majority of the time during the series--but what the Thunder lacked was the ability to close out games down the stretch, a problem that also plagued the Thunder during the regular season. The way that the Warriors outlasted the Thunder reminded me of how boxer Sugar Ray Leonard won some fights by picking up points on the judges' scorecards with end of the round flurries even though he had actually been outboxed for most of the round; the Thunder "outboxed" the Warriors for most of the series and yet succumbed to short flurries, usually at the end of quarters.

If the Cavaliers try to play small ball versus the Warriors, the Cavaliers could get swept; the Cavaliers must utilize their size, slow the game down and punish the Warriors in the paint. James must station himself on the block on offense and either score 40 points or else kick to open three point shooters if the Warriors double team him. The Warriors have no one who can check James one on one in the post and when the Warriors go small they have no one in the paint who can prevent James from finishing at the rim. The Cavaliers might consider using Love to anchor the second unit, running their offense through Love in the post when James takes a rare breather. When James or Love posts up, Tristan Thompson should be crashing the boards from the other side of the lane. A key element to the success of this strategy is the ability to make effective entry passes to the post without turning the ball over, something which at times seems to be a lost art in the NBA.

The conventional way to view this series is that James and the Cavaliers pushed the Warriors to six games last year without Love and Irving, so this year the Cavaliers are in a great position to win--but that ignores how/why the Cavaliers did well against the Warriors: in the first three games of the 2015 Finals, the Cavaliers utilized center Timofey Mozgov to good effect in the paint at both ends of the court but then-Cleveland Coach David Blatt capitulated to playing small-ball when the Warriors went small in game four. The Warriors cannot effectively go big, so their only option/adjustment when they face adversity is to go small and play faster--but the smart thing to do when the Warriors do that is to stay the course and not get rattled. Look at game seven of the 2016 Western Conference Finals; the Thunder led at halftime and even after the Warriors hit some incredible shots in the third quarter the game was still up for grabs--but the problem for the Thunder is that their players (and perhaps their coaching staff) panicked and acted as if a three point deficit was a 20 point deficit. The game was still there for the taking but the Thunder lost focus and started arguing with each other instead of focusing on the task at hand.

Will the Cavaliers have enough poise and discipline to stick with a big lineup? Will James be willing to play in the post and accept the challenge of scoring in the paint if the Warriors elect to single cover him? Those factors will determine how competitive Cleveland is in this series.

James has no excuses this time around: he has his handpicked coach and his handpicked roster, plus both of his All-Star sidekicks are fully healthy. James has the necessary tools in place to beat the Warriors but I expect the outcome this time to be the same as the outcome last year: Warriors win in six games. James will have the gaudiest individual numbers of any player in the series but Stephen Curry will make the key game-winning plays to cap off a dream season with his first Finals MVP.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:14 AM



At Wednesday, June 01, 2016 5:06:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Point of order, when Amare and Diaw left the bench they went towards the downed Nash, not towards Horry (though Bell and if I recall Marion did get in Horry's face). It is still fair to criticize that decision, but it's not a "fugazi" moment so much as it is two guys checking on their much smaller teammate who'd been body slammed.

As for Cavs/Warriors:

* I am not sure that- against GSW- Cleveland is materially better than last year with Irving/Love healthy. Both are defensive liabilities which you can't really afford against GSW. Based on your series pick, perhaps you agree.

* Related, OKC's big lineup (which saw some success) included two above average defenders in Adams and Ibaka; Love is a terrible defender and Thompson is a good but unremarkable one (and Frye is roughly average, if a little on the slow side). They will have to play well above their defensive norms to protect the paint against GSW's drives and cuts if they want those lineups to have a shot, especially when defensive turnstile Kyrie Irving is on the court. Curry and Thompson are deadly three point shooters but they are also quite happy to make easy layups on lazy defenders.

* I agree that Cleveland will live or die offensively based on Lebron's aggressiveness. He will likely need to average 40 for them to have a real shot.

* Cleveland's role-players need to be able to make open 3s, particularly Shumpert, Smith, Frye, and Delly. If those guys go cold, Lebron will be swarmed in the paint and the series will be over.

* Draymond Green will likely have a much better offensive series with PnRs involving Kevin Love or Channing Frye instead of Steven Adams or Serge Ibaka.

* Kerr is likely to coach rings around Lue.

Warriors in 5. 6 if Cleveland has one of those games where their B-team is smoking from 3.

At Wednesday, June 01, 2016 9:03:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

This series is about Lebron. I completely agree with you, he needs to post up and destroy them inside. If Lebron can become an uber Karl Malone this series with passing and penetration Cleveland can win. He needs to commit to big effort offensive rebounds and creating havoc in the key. It's unfortunate we haven't seen this side of Lebron because I think it would shaqesque unstoppable and really create opportunities for his guys. It also cuts out the worst (and for him, most tempting) part of his game which are unsolicited three pointers. He needs to understand that he will lose a shootout with Curry if he makes it one. He needs to go get the ball off the glass.

At the moment Lebron is the best player in the world. The best thing about this series is he might not be at the end of it. Magic vs Michael the sequel?

At Wednesday, June 01, 2016 2:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this may be a minor point, but Adams play has improved this year, and I have noticed that a lot of the cheap shot stuff that happened after every play has significantly decreased.

At Wednesday, June 01, 2016 3:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amare/Diaw didn't get very far, but they rushed out immediately. Horry/Nash were close to each other, hard to tell where they were running initially. I actually thought SA got shafted on this one. Maybe Horry should've been ejected, but he shouldn't have been suspended at all. The nba is just very inconsistent with their fines/suspensions, especially in the playoffs. Horry really didn't hit Nash very hard. Maybe he just caught him in the wrong spot a bit and slightly off-balance. Nash exaggerated the contact, and he should've known he was going to get fouled anyway. If he doesn't exaggerate the hit, PHO wouldn't have been so upset about it. There's no need for Amare/Diaw to go check on their teammate. PHO has coaches/doctors for that, and they should know the rules. It was an impulse move by them. They needed to control their emotions better.

As we should see by now, it's a star's league. CLE doesn't have a chance vs GS without their stars. James has more than enough help to lead CLE to a title if he plays like the MVP and doesn't get outplayed by a 6th man again.

CLE only has to go through one top team. GS just went through a huge battle, and were quite fortunate to come out of it. This could be good or bad for GS, hard to tell.

It is a huge accomplishment to make 6 straight finals, but it should very well be put into perspective. The East has been a joke for almost, if not longer, 2 decades compared to the West. James' teams would be very fortunate, if in the West, to make even 1 or 2 finals, let alone win any. They probably would win at least one, but it's an exponentially easier route to the title to be able to cakewalk to the CF, and mostly cakewalk into the finals.

At Wednesday, June 01, 2016 5:55:00 PM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Presumably since he won two finals if his team was in the west he would only make it out of the WCF twice. I agree with David it is a significant achievement, but I also agree with Anonymous in that I'm not sure how to place it in context. The Eastern Conference has been so weak in the last six years, off the top of my head I can't think of one team other than Lebron's who I would pick to make it out of the first round in the West.

Significantly when there was some competition out East he missed out on the Finals for the most part. Boston/Pistons/Orlando all spoiled Lebron's party at some point or the other.

At Wednesday, June 01, 2016 5:59:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

The East certainly has had some real teams in the last few years, just a lot less than the West. There have been, during Lebron's 6 year run, pretty strong incarnations of the Pacers, the Celtics, the Bulls, and maybe the Hawks. Lebron's had an easier path, to be sure, but there have been a few teams that would have been contenders in the West that he had to get through.

At Wednesday, June 01, 2016 8:33:00 PM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Can't say I agree with you at all on that one Nick. A contender out west should have a realistic chance of winning the WCF. I can't see any of those teams making the WCF.

The west has been ridiculously strong. Boston was over the hill in the last two years. I would agree with you if we said last 10 years though. Chicago was a good team but can you envision a scenario where either makes it out of the Western Conference? I went back and looked at the brackets, which team do you think had a shot to even make the WCF let alone get out? That Chicago team for example would have to beat either Dallas (who were the surprise champs that year), or OKC. To get out of the first round they would have further had to displace the Lakers (defending champs with Kobe) or the underrated Memphis team. Maybe they get out of the first round, or maybe I'm forgetting how good Derrick Rose was but I just don't see it, Nick.

At Wednesday, June 01, 2016 9:35:00 PM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Edit: Sorry Boston was over the hill in the first two years of our six year period.

At Wednesday, June 01, 2016 9:40:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


Reasonable men can differ, but I'd take that peak Rose team over most of the teams you just mentioned, and possibly even over Dallas (it's an interesting matchup, to say the least). I also think the '11 or '12 era Celtics or '13/'14 Pacers were at least a threat in the WCF, depending on matchup. I especially like those Pacers teams in a hypothetical OKC matchup, with George on Durant, Hill on Westbrook, and Hibbert in the paint behind them. It's easy to forget how good that Pacers team was, given what Lance and Hibbert have since turned into, but they were illegitimately one of the best defensive teams of the era, were extremely well-coached, and had a top ten superstar in Paul George. 2011 Celtics were all of one year removed from going 7 games in the Finals (and losing partly due to injury), so I think it's fair to say they were still a real threat as well.

At Wednesday, June 01, 2016 10:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andrew, presumably-yes. However, that's not how it works. It's about matchups, difficulty of schedule and when you play teams. James' road to the title would've been extremely more difficult if he played in the west. Often in the west, even the top teams have to play 3 tough series just to get to the finals. Then, their east opp might be easier possibly than their WCF opp but still tough, and the east opp should be more well-rested, which I'd prefer if it were my team. Maybe James' teams had to go through one tough opp at most in conference, then the percentages of them winning it all greatly increase. If James' teams had to play 2-3 tough series before the finals, then the finals, that's much tougher. Look at what happened vs TOR. Yes, TOR finished with the 4th best record overall, but barely made it out of the 1st/2nd rounds, and they're obviously not really a true contender. Plus, Jonas barely played in ECF. James and his teams are often inconsistent. If LAC were healthy in the playoffs, I don't see TOR making it out of the 1st round in the west.

Agree mostly about when there was tougher competition in east, James' teams didn't make finals mostly. CHI good in 11, but not ready to win title. IND had some decent teams, but same as CHI. ATL greatly overachieved last year, and had little chance to win. BOS still a tough team in 12, but certainly past their window. James had plenty of help each of these years, too. Maybe a few borderline contenders in the east over the past 6 years but very few and hard to see any of them making the WCF, just not typical title teams. Still a much easier path to the title playing in the east.

CHI could've possibly made it to WCF and maybe finals in 11, but I don't think they make it out of the 2nd round at best. Remember that 8th-seeded MEM downed SA in 1st round without their leading scorer, Gay. CHI could've beaten down DAL, though, but probably unlikely. It comes down to how they matchup against them. I'm surprised James wilted away vs DAL instead of CHI, since CHI seemed like a much tougher team. And when James wilts away, it's usually against hardnosed teams.

At Wednesday, June 01, 2016 10:11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, thanks for the good preview. You say that the Warriors can be worn down by size, and I think that's certainly true. But one thing you didn't mention was the rest GS gave its stars versus OKC, which played Durant and Westbrook 45 or 46 minutes a game, particularly toward the end of the series.

To me, that was a hugely important (maybe definitive) factor in explaining why GS won. You say (correctly) that OKC struggled to close all season, but in this series, it nonetheless seemed like Curry and Thompson still had springs in their legs at the end, while Durant and Westbrook had heavy legs, short jumpers, and fatigued handles.

That could be a very significant factor in the finals, too, I think. Cleveland is not deep, and Lue has played Lebron in particular very heavy minutes--I see no reason to expect that won't continue.

I wouldn't be surprised at all to see lots of close games in the finals, where GS just pulls away at the end. I may well be overstating "fatigue"--which is less important for non-jump-shooters anyway--but I think that both the deep bench of GS and the willingness of Kerr to rest his stars even when the games look dicey could be definitive here. In fact, I'd guess that almost all the games will be close, but that the series might be relatively short, with GS winning in 5 or 6.

At Wednesday, June 01, 2016 11:24:00 PM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Dallas won the chip, so whilst I agree different match ups can have different outcomes I can't see how Chicago beats them. That Dallas team took a hard road to the finals, beating the defending champs and OKC on their run. I think they proved themselves in the playoffs as a very deserving champ that year.

Boston had a relatively steep decline from contender status after making the finals a year before. As you say, reasonable men disagree but whilst Boston were still technically contenders, it was because of their place in the Eastern Conference. Those post 2010 teams never would have made it out of the West. They were a shadow of the juggernaut of just the previous year in my opinion.

All the teams you mentioned have one thing in common, they never really won anything and they have all been dismantled after short periods of "dominance." On the other hand the fighting pit out west had a lot of teams with pedigree that brought it year in year out, even if they never made it out of the West.

Put it this way, if Lebron was in the Western Conference there is no chance he makes six straight finals and that is kind of the point.

At Thursday, June 02, 2016 2:39:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

I don't really disagree with that contention, but once you start putting those sort of qualifiers on feats like this none of them count. Jordan never would have won 6 rings without Pippen, Russell couldn't have done 8 in a row in a league with more than 10 teams, etc. etc.

I don't disagree that Lebron benefitted from being in the East, I just also don't agree that it was the total walkover it's being made out to be in this thread.

Boston in 2011 had the same four best players from their Finals run the year before, so I don't think they were materially worse. In fact, they won six more games than they had the year before.

Indiana and Chicago both similarly had the win total of a high-tier Western Contender, even with allowing for the weaker conference.

I am not sure I would take Chicago over that Dallas team but I wonder if Dallas would have been able to score against that choking defense; none of the teams Dallas beat were as good defensively as Chicago was that year. Boozer would have been the weak point in that defense but he would also have been a tough cover for Dirk on the other end (at that point), and I suspect Chicago would have dominated the boards. Kidd was still a great defender but I feel like he would have struggled against Rose's speed. I could be wrong, but I don't think winning the title necessarily means a team is unbeatable by any other team that year; often it's a question of matchups. I am not sure that all of Lebron's Miami teams could have beaten that era's Memphis, for example, who were uniquely well-suited to playing against Miami, and yet not one of the six best teams in the league.

At Thursday, June 02, 2016 8:56:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the whole Lebron in light of the East vs West thing, for me three things are clear.

1) In Lebron's run of 6 finals appearances, the West has in general had more talent than the East.

2) Despite 1, the East was not consistently THAT much weaker than the West.

3) The funny counterfactuals about Lebron's performances were he in the West do not detract from the achievement.

It seems everybody more or less agrees on 1, so I won't go too much into that.

On to point 2:

In the 2010-2011 season that started the run, the Bulls team they dispatched in the ECF had the best record in all of basketball, including 1-1 splits in the regular season against the Thunder, Spurs, and Lakers, and 2-0 against the eventual dark horse winner Mavericks.

In the shortened 2011-2012 season, the disparity was a bit greater. The Celtics team they faced in the ECF didn't do well against the best teams in the West; the Pacers however did quite well in their regular season matchups against the best West teams. Of course, the Heat also won the title that season, beating the Thunder rather convincingly.

In 2012-2013 the disparity was again noticeable. The Pacers they faced in the ECF didn't fare well in their regular season matchups against the top teams from the West. The Knicks they beat in the Semis, though, did quite well in the regular season matchups against the West, splitting their games with the Thunder 1-1 and beating the Spurs 2-0.
Ultimately, of course, the Heat finished with the best record in basketball and the title that season, after a tough and entertaining Finals with the Spurs.

In 2013-2014, the Heat ended up getting beaten convincingly by the Spurs in the Finals, but their path was not full of pushovers. The Pacers team they faced in the ECF split 1-1 in the regular season with both the Thunder and Spurs. The strange Nets of that year that they faced in the Semis did the same.

In 2014-2015, the Hawks they faced in the ECF split 1-1 in the regular season with the Warriors and Thunder, but did lose 2-0 to the Spurs. Of course, now we're into the realm where memories are fresh, so we know how the Finals turned out. The Bulls they faced in the Semis split with all of the Warriors, Thunder, and Spurs in the regular season.

The Raptors they faced in the ECF this year lost 2-0 to the Spurs and Warriors (as most teams would/did), and split 1-1 with the Thunder in the regular season. The Hawks they faced in the Semis did the same, even stretching the Warriors out to OT in one of the losses.

Wrapping up point 2, yes, the best teams in the East have not been quite as good as the best teams in the West during Lebron's run of Finals appearances, but they haven't been THAT much worse.

Obviously the regular season is not the playoffs, and the usual 2 game regular season series is a small sample, but it's what we have and it shows that the teams Lebron faced in the playoffs weren't all that much weaker, if any weaker in some cases, than the teams he could have faced in the West.

At Thursday, June 02, 2016 8:56:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Part 2:

On to point 3:

All the attention seems to be on these interesting counterfactuals about Lebron's shot at such a run were he in the West. That is interesting, I suppose, but even if the answer is that he wouldn't get 6 in a row, I don't know how much that actually detracts from the achievement.

Let's look at another counterfactual, but in the other direction. What player from the West, if he had been substituted for Lebron over the last 6 seasons, would have gone to 6 finals in the "weak" East? With a different spin on it, what team from the West over the last 6 seasons could make it out of the East all 6 seasons?

As so often with counterfactuals, there's no way to know for certain, and as Nick is fond of saying, reasonable men can disagree, but I think it's reasonable to say that no other player would have been able to pull this off in Lebron's shoes, and no team from the West would have a good chance of appearing in the Finals all 6 times.

Maybe Durant would have the closest chance on the player counterfactual, and the Thunder or Spurs would have the best shot in the team counterfactual, but I think the odds would be very, very low.

Sure, if Lebron's teams were magically put in the West the last 6 seasons, he probably doesn't duplicate the achievement. Hell, for that matter (and I do think this is important), if Lebron replays the last 6 seasons, I doubt he does this again. None of that really detracts from the achievement, in my mind.

One of the striking things about record breaking achievements is precisely that they are so improbable and difficult to duplicate. Make the Warriors of this season play the regular season again, they probably don't make 73. Make the Bulls of 95-96 replay that season, they probably don't get 72.

The counterfactuals about whether such achievements could be duplicated in other situations are definitely interesting and can stimulate some thoughtful analysis, but ultimately I'll choose to just admire all these spectacular achievements.

They are incredible, stupendously difficult feats that I enjoy being witness to, whether or not they could be duplicated in other situations or even the same situations.


At Thursday, June 02, 2016 9:48:00 PM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

Nick, you can call them qualifiers or you can call it context. Making "all or nothing" statements like that is just fallacious reasoning. I never said his accomplishment didn't mean anything, I think it is a great accomplishment. I don't think there is another team/player in the league who could have accomplished 6 finals over 6 years during that period. OKC had years where they suffered injuries so they couldn't have done it and they are the only other contender I can think of.

You can't deny the context though. The East has been historically weak. On top of that James is an unusual case because of the way he as able to change teams mid run. This both heightens the difficulty (new team, new system), and makes it easier because Cleveland undoubtedly had more assets than Miami at the time. With that all being said James is the best player in the league and has been by a large margin for a long time now, that is a real achievement.

Re: Game 1, James has been very productive when they get it to him deep in the post. Unstoppable.

At Thursday, June 02, 2016 11:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The East hasn't been a complete walkover these past few years, but they're still no comparison with the West. Regular-season win totals are a bit misleading and H2H during regular season usually doesn't mean thing, especially in the weaker East. 2015 ATL and 2016 TOR would both be fortunate to make the 2nd round if they were in the West.

2011 CHI possibly could've beaten DAL, but they still most likely don't make it out of the 2nd round if in West.

And let's not forget that James has had the best cast of any other East team these past 6 years. He should be making the finals each time. He's not overachieving.

Good point about what player could've done the same as James. However, we have several fading-away stars: Dirk, Kobe, Duncan. What other star player could even be a relevant selection-being in prime or near-prime each year? That's what we have to look at. I can only think of KD or Westbrook. I'm not sure KD could've made 6 consecutive finals, but it's possible. However, I also think if KD played hard and near his abilities throughout the playoffs(even being injured in 2015), he would've won at least 2 titles. I bet Westbrook would've won at least one title. Also, James switched teams to brighter pastures-a common theme of his career. So you can't just think of one team being able to make 6 consecutive finals. SA has a case, and I bet they would've made at least 4-5, winning at least 2.

The other thing we have to consider is how would James and his teams do in the West? I can only see them making 1-2 finals at most, maybe not winning any. The easier route to the finals surely has helped them. It is a great accomplishment still.

I wouldn't say James is the best player in the league and definitiely not by a wide margin, though he's in the conversation. But, maybe if CLE wins the finals. He may have been in game 1, though Iggy is making another strong case. Curry's probably been from start of season to now, but another ho-hum finals game. Good thing for him Thompson erupted in games 6/7 vs OKC.

At Thursday, June 02, 2016 11:54:00 PM, Blogger HP said...

Kevin Love: 17-13

LeBron: 23-12-9

Kyrie: 26-3-4


Steph Curry: 11 points

Klay Thompson: 9 points.

Result? Get blown out by the GS bench.

Wow. I mean, i know most people are just going to start talking about 'LeBron needs to do more, too passive, he needs to score 40"..... but the Big 3 played well. Cleveland's role players just sucked AND Cleveland couldn't really defend well.

Which isn't surprising seeing as they don't have a legit rim protector and two of their best players are bad defensively. I'm hoping the role players can play better next game, but i've come to grips with the fact that GS won 73 games for a reason. They're simply the better team. Going to be annoying to hear people go all "2/7" and talk about how LeBron didn't do enough if the Cavs lose the series.

At Friday, June 03, 2016 12:24:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


LeBron shot 9-21 from the field and spent way too much time on offense standing by the Oracle logo 28 feet away from the hoop. Also, Irving is an All-Star pg so why is LeBron bringing the ball up the court?

LeBron needs to not only go in the post and demand the ball but he needs to make quick moves to score. He is dribbling too much and he is looking to pass to lesser players who don't have a matchup advantage.

LeBron is the self-proclaimed best player on the planet, he has his handpicked coach and he has his handpicked roster so, yes, after GS wins this series it will be quite appropriate to not only talk about the Warriors' team accomplishment but also about LeBron's 2-5 Finals record.

At Friday, June 03, 2016 12:28:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You may be correct that fatigue was a factor but I remember Jordan and Pippen regularly logging 40-plus minutes during their six championship runs; sometimes elite players have to play heavy minutes.

At Friday, June 03, 2016 12:32:00 AM, Blogger HP said...

So you think LeBron should simply score more? That's it? How about Cleveland's role players playing better and the team overall playing much better defense? Though with 2 bad defensive players in Love and Kyrie i think that's quite a tough task.

This is exactly the narrative i'm tired of. Cleveland gets destroyed by GS's bench and some just react simply by "LeBron needs to do more". Dude had 23-12-9, Big 3 scored 66 points... what needs to be addressed is that the cross-matchup scheme by Tyron Lue caused lots of miscommunication between the Cavs, and they got lost/made mistakes both in the half court after GS actions and on the fast break. Also, Clev's players really fall asleep sometimes and give up many cuts.

Those mistakes need to be fixed, and they were probably responsible for about 17-20 points that could have been avoided/made tougher. Also, the ball needs to move more from Cleveland's offense. Yet not, what i hear from you is that LeBron's "handpicked coach" even though the coach LeBron actually wanted was Mike Jackson (look it up), and that he's the self proclaimed best player so he should do more on offense.

Come on.

At Friday, June 03, 2016 12:39:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Golden State scored 104 with their two best players shooting 8-27 and their MVP turning it over 5 times?

Weird. It almost seems like... Cleveland is terrible defensively when Love/Irving play and this version isn't materially better than the version from last year's finals.

They also only scored 89, which isn't helping, either. I expect their offensive numbers to get better, and their defensive numbers to get worse (safe to assume the Splash Bros wake up at least somewhat). Always dangerous to overreact to one game, but it's hard to imagine a much more discouraging start for Cleveland.

And yeah, if Cleveland wants any shot Lebron needs to be way more aggressive, but even at his best I don't know that it's realistic to expect him to win when the other team has three of the four best players in the series, the better coach, and the vastly superior bench. It may be fair to blame 'GM' Lebron for the team he's got, but I'm not sure there's anything 'player' Lebron can really do unless his supporting cast dramatically over performs their usual standards.

At Friday, June 03, 2016 12:49:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

I second putting Lebron off the ball and in the post. Do it early, get golden state in foul trouble. Start passing and swinging the ball when they collapse. Lebron has such great vision he will be unstoppable in the post. Closer to the basket he can also dominate offensive boards. He needs to play big this series, let Kyrie be point.

At Friday, June 03, 2016 1:07:00 AM, Blogger Keith said...


You've stated how you've found James maddening to watch sometimes and I had a similar reaction tonight. I don't understand how LeBron's mind works.

It seems as if Love and Irving being healthy has almost given him an excuse to regress and look to pass the ball and defer as opposed to playing like he did last year in the Finals. He even went to the hoop earlier on in the game with a good amount of success but for some reason stopped and kept looking to hand off the ball to Irving and sometimes Love. He knows what to do and is perfectly capable of doing it. Why he suddenly decides not to is a mystery to me.

At Friday, June 03, 2016 1:13:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Reread my comment.

I did not say that LeBron necessarily needs to score more. I said that he needs to play in the post, shoot more efficiently than 9-21 from the field and not pass the ball in situations when he has the best matchup.

During the telecast, JVG repeatedly pointed out that the Warriors were getting so many easy looks because of the defensive attention that Curry draws. I could add that Kobe had the same effect (reread my archived game recaps for specific examples).

LeBron put this roster together. If you believe that he did not fire Blatt and hire Lue so be it but I think that LeBron pretty much runs the Cavs. He left Miami because Riley won't stand for that, going all the way back years ago to when Wade asked for more help and Riley told Wade to re-sign with the team or leave but keep your mouth shut about my roster moves while you are keeping your options open.

LeBron has the team that he wants and he has told us that he is the best player in the world. Let's see him back up those words by playing in the post instead of standing by the Oracle logo. I can guard LeBron out there.

At Friday, June 03, 2016 1:22:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...



The "stat gurus" will rave about LeBron's near triple double but LeBron did not have the impact that he could have or should have. If LeBron ran to the post and took deep position before GS could set up their defense he could foul out their whole frontcourt. Instead, LeBron dribbles the ball up the court, passes to Irving and stands by the Oracle logo while Irving goes one on one.

A Kobe game in which he shot 10-30 but attacked the defense and opened up the court for his teammates is infintely better than what James did, even if Kobe "only" had four or five assists in such a game. Kobe always put pressure on the defense--and he actually had to be guarded at the three point line because he was a perimeter threat. When LeBron is by the Oracle logo you can see all of the letters because he is standing there by himself while his team goes four on five.

At Friday, June 03, 2016 2:19:00 AM, Blogger Andrew Hennings said...

HP, people criticise Lebron because of both the rarefied air that he is in and what we know he is capable of. I agree with him when he says he is the best player on the planet but I'm not sure he is the best winner on the planet. His killer instinct comes and goes. His peers (Kobe/Larry/Michael) all seem to have had this unshakeable whatever it takes attitude, and whilst some of the statlines they put up weren't as impressive, when they played winning seemed inevitable. What makes Lebron so frustrating is that sometimes I get that with him, but sometimes he puts up great stateliness but doesn't seem to be affecting the game as much as he can.

David's point on Curry is apt. Curry's stat line was poor but he really shaped the Cavs defence opening things up for his teammates. There are great defenders who could do the opposite on the other end and shrink the floor for their teammates. Lebron can and has done both in his prime in Miami.

Lebron is puzzling. I don't think I've ever seen a player where I've spent so many games waiting for knockout punches that never came. He just fades.

At Friday, June 03, 2016 2:07:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

"...and he actually had to be guarded at the three point line because he was a perimeter threat."

Um. Lebron's got a better career 3pt FG% (though he declined this year). Neither's even been especially great from 3 (except for that one year Lebron was over 40%), but both were good enough to make them if you left them open.

In general I agree that Lebron needs to be more aggressive, but it seems odd to claim that he requires any more attention at the 3 point line than Kobe did, considering Lebron's actually a slightly better shooter from that range for his career.

At Friday, June 03, 2016 2:33:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Kobe׳s career percentage includes "hand grenades" (when he received the ball with the shot clock about to "explode" and thus took the shot quickly) and it also includes his final two injury-plagued seasons, when Kobe shot threes prolifically but not accurately after injuries impacted his ability to drive to the hoop (I am neither criticizing nor approving Kobe's shot selection during his final two years but just making the point that those numbers lowered his career three point percentage).

During his prime, defenders went over screens so as to deny Bryant open threes. No one guards LeBron that way.

Field goal percentage is only meaningful in context. A player's field goal percentage should be evaluated in terms of what kinds of defenses he faced (was he dared to shoot or was he heavily guarded all over the court?), his ability to create his own shot, whether he played against starters or backups (this is not so much a factor with Bryant v. James but it matters when looking at other players) and many other factors. DeAndre Jordan's record-setting field goal percentages are not an indicator that the Clippers should force-feed him the ball 40 times a game.

Kobe Bryant in his prime would nail open three pointers fairly consistently, which is why defenders tried to avoid giving him that shot. LeBron James is a much less consistent shooter than Bryant, which is why defenders are more apt to concede that shot to James. It is a bonus for James and his team when he makes that shot but if he just camps out behind the three point line (as he did last night for large stretches of the game, particularly in the second half) then his defender can sag and the Cavaliers are essentially playing four on five offensively.

At Friday, June 03, 2016 2:47:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...


I suspect Lebron has taken a similar percentage of "hand grenade" shots, particularly in his early Cleveland days. I also think that Kobe's last two injury plagued seasons have a relatively low impact on his FG%, given the amount of games he missed. If you removed them, he would perhaps be a one percent better three point shooter than James, instead of a one percent worse one.

I watched Kobe through his entire career and disagree that he was a significantly more consistent deep shooter when open; if anything, he seemed to miss more of those than he ought to and make more of the ones than you'd think when he had guys draped all over him. You're right that defenders are more likely to go under screens involving James, but I think that's got more to do with the fact that James' driving game is more dangerous than Kobe's was due to his superior size and strength; better to concede a 34% three than the 70% or so James usually shoots at the rim (and often on and-ones). Kobe was a great finisher as well, but he was never a 70% guy, and he wasn't as physically monstrous as James.

Don't get me wrong, there were many things Kobe did better than James- aggression foremost among them- but it seems silly to suggest he was a significantly better three point shooter when both his career averages and best seasons are inferior to James' from that realm, and they received similar amounts of defensive attention. In fact, Kobe's only two season above 37%- roughly the cutoff for "good" three point shooting- came while he played beside Shaq. Lebron's similarly came while he played beside Wade and Bosh.

None of this changes your larger point- Lebron needs to get his ass in the paint and punish the Warriors' size- but suggesting that Kobe had to be more guarded at the line- particularly off-ball, as I thought you were implying- seems inaccurate to me.

At Friday, June 03, 2016 3:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I don't have time to continue to reply so I will just add one final thought: LeBron cares much more about his stats--particularly FG%--than Kobe and is thus disinclined to take hand grenade shots. Kobe took hand grenades because he thought he could make them and because a miss (which could be rebounded or could lead to a foul on the other team during the scramble for the rebound) could help the team, but LeBron tends to pass in those situations. LeBron passed up at least one such shot vs. GS last night and Mark Jackson commented that the best player can't pass the ball in that situation, though of course Jackson did not use the term hand grenade as I do.

At Friday, June 03, 2016 3:26:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did GS really score that much? 104 isn't good for them. Other than James, Irving, Love, and Thompson who combined for 76 points, the 5 other guys who played for CLE other than in garbage time were 4-11 for 13 points. These 5(Smith, Delly, Frye, Jefferson, and Shumpert) and Thompson who mainly just gets putbacks had almost no chances to score and were basically not allowed to shoot. CLE's role players did fine given their opportunities.

James has brought this stuff onto himself, calling himself the King and the Chosen One, along with handpicking his teammates/coaches. He continues to not give full effort every game. Curry's stats were bad and he certainly didn't play at an MVP level in game 1, but his teammates fed off of him and the defensive attention he draws. How many times did GS get great looks because he was remaining aggressive on offense? I lost count. He probably had a bigger impact than James did in game 1.

Nick, your last comment about Kobe is a clear example of your misunderstanding of him and stats in general. Do you really think you can just look at 3pt FG% and with complete certainty declare who the better 3pt shooter is? David mentioned several good examples. Spotup shooters generally shoot better pct, and they're often not having to setup their teammates either, which makes Curry even more impressive. Kobe did have to shoot all these 'hand grenades,' more than any other player I've ever seen, but as I've said before, he would also shoot many 3's at ends of games to just give his team a shot of winning if they were down by 10 with 2 minutes left for example. Late in game 4 vs TOR with ClE down 12, James had Biyombo one-on-one on the left wing with 6-8 seconds left on the shot clock. James decides to pass completely crosscourt to Smith, who is standing 30 feet away behind the right wing with less than 5 seconds on the shot clock. Is this really a smart decision? Kobe would've at least tried to do something, fail or not. Also, I would see Kobe shooting heaves a lot more than other guys who wait a split second after the buzzer, so it won't hurt their stats, KD/James included.

Kobe and James might have similar 3pt FG%, but Kobe was a much better and consistent 3pt shooter. How many times do you see James double-teamed right after he crosses midcourt or even just right behind the 3pt line, something that was a consistent sight in Kobe's prime? Some of it is James' driving ability, but his defenders give him much more space when he's standing behind the 3pt line. If he was even nearly as good at 3's as Kobe, he wouldn't be given this much space routinely.

At Friday, June 03, 2016 3:40:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kobe shot .250 in 2002 from 3. It's no secret he worked on that part of his game after that season to make it a skill. Shaq might've helped a little, but not that much to make him increase his pct .133 up to .383 in one season. James is routinely given much more space from the perimeter, whereas Kobe rarely had any space initially. Obviously, the guy that is much more wide open and who doesn't take many 'hand grenade' shots will probably shoot better, even if he's a much worse shooter. Overall, the defensive attention Kobe and James draw if they're aggressive(which James often isn't) is fairly close, but not from the perimeter.

At Friday, June 03, 2016 5:51:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Also worth noting that James rested in the 3rd quarter with 34.1 and the Cavaliers were only down 71 - 68. When he returned in the 4th quarter, Cleveland was trailing 84 - 70. Even a more passive James was able to keep the game close while he was in. He's going to have to play very major minutes, as much of the entire game as possible, to even be able to keep things competitive or this series is going to be over very very quickly.

James has a tendency to bounce back after losing Game 1's so it will be interesting to see if he puts up a fight in Game 2 or if he completely rolls over in which case this series will probably be already done.


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